The legacy of hip-hop’s exclusion at the Grammy Awards
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Mikaela Manuel // Illustrator
In the weeks leading up to last year’s Grammy Awards telecast, award show producer Ken Ehrlich blamed the continuing loss of the Grammys cultural relevance on having “a problem in the hip-hop world,” Ehrlich said in an interview with The New York Times. What Ehrlich gets right is perhaps confirming that what happens on the Grammy stage exists in an alternate reality from the one hip-hop occupies. Hip-hop is not the problem, the Grammys are.
In 1984, Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental for his performance of Rockit. Front and center, quite literally elevated, stood the first DJ to grace the prime-time award show. Grandmixer D.ST made history shredding a pair of Technics 1200’s like they were an electric guitar in the hands of Van Halen. His performance at the 16th Grammy awards defied categorization and inspired multiple generations of hip-hop artists.
After Rockit, the Grammy awards excluded hip-hop entirely until 1989, when a new category was introduced: Best Rap Performance. The Recording Academy then informed the nominees (which included the likes of Will Smith, Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J) as well as their record labels that their awards would not be televised. The line was drawn. Three of the category’s five nominees boycotted the show.
Televised awards such as the Grammys have long been in the domain of controversy, and this is especially true for hip-hop. The Recording Academy reevaluates its genre distinctions each year, considering whether to redraw or reinvent categories “based on what’s going on in culture.” The problem is that these categories are based on binary tree-like structures. Western music history is usually presented in the same format, but where in a tree-based filing system does something like Rockit fit? Is it jazz, R&B, rock, electronic, hip-hop, funk, all the above, or none?
Innovative music is going to defy categorization. Rockit doesn’t fit into a binary tree structure because music at the cultural level doesn’t operate this way. If a tree-system cannot find space for a piece of music, then it’s a failure of the system, not the piece. Music, like history, is rhizomatic. Rockit laid the groundwork for the future of hip-hop. If the Grammy awards claim to create categorization based on cultural significance, then the systematic exclusion of hip-hop and black artists, by extension, is emblematic of the institution and those that represent it which decides what is culturally significant.
Like looking at ice samples from icebergs or rings in tree slices, one can jump back in time and observe the hegemonic cultural norms carved into history. Hip-hop has been at odds with the Recording Academy since the 1989 Grammys. This is because the Grammys are functionally no different from a social club. Like most elite social clubs, they aren’t interested in those on the peripheries challenging internal power structures. Hip-hop isn’t a genre that’s ever been privy to the inner circle of cultural hegemonies. If we acknowledge that the Grammys are a peer award, then the argument evaporates into something about American civics. Whether black musicians should be more involved, or even want to be is another issue entirely.
Hip-hop quite literally began in the peripheries of the burning Bronx in the 1970’s as a revolt against oppression. It was not a medium to seek acceptance from their oppressors. In their groundbreaking 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Public Enemy made it possible to talk about hip-hop as a socially conscious, and even journalistic, medium. Public Enemy appeared in hip-hop culture the same way the idea of “punk” did in bands like The Ramones with rock music. On that same album, Public Enemy addressed this sentiment directly on the song Terminator X to the Edge of Panic: “The federal government is the number one killer and destroyer of Black leaders! […] Who gives a f*** about a goddamn Grammy?”
Despite self-proclaimed rap artist Lizzo garnering the most nominations for any artist in the upcoming 2020 Grammys for her album Cuz I Love You, music created by Black artists has a lengthy history as a barometer for shaping American culture without recognition.
While the exact racial makeup of the nonpublic academy membership has not been disclosed, many Black artists such as Kanye West express ambivalence to the award. Coming from an artist with 21 Grammy wins throughout his career, that should mean something. Artists like West doubt whether voting members of the Recording Academy care about any hip-hop outside of Top 40.
To deem hip-hop underrated and underrepresented at the Grammys would be an understatement. There have been droves of cerebral, brilliant scribes with massive bodies of work in the genre since its inception. Regardless of their non-recognition by the Grammys, as Public Enemy so eloquently put it in 88’, hip-hop doesn’t really give a f*** about them.